In 1994 photographer Roberto Dutesco made his first visit to Sable Island, a small sand bar in the Atlantic home to some 500 wild horses. It was a journey that would change his life, and lead him from the world of fashion to conservation. By Katherine Fidler
There is a mystery to Sable Island born not just of the rolling mists and sea fret that shroud its grassy dunes more days than not. Nor is it the seemingly implausible existence of a narrow sandbar – barely 100 metres wide in places – standing firm between the relentless, swirling blows of the Atlantic as the Gulf and Labrador currents collide.
Even the island’s Cheshire cat smile silhouette, 200 miles adrift of Nova Scotia, reveals nothing – although that crooked grin clearly knows.
It is the power of the island to thwart humankind’s numerous attempts at domestication, the victory of Mother Nature over pioneers and colonists to preserve this tiny sanctuary for herself. From wrecking the ships that dared veer too close – some 500 over 500 years – to driving away those would-be exploiters of the island’s resources with a salvo of storms, Sable Island remains a true wilderness in a world where such places are ever-dwindling in number.
Ironically, it is the evidence of these many doomed voyages that the island has allowed to flourish. Horses. Hundreds of horses, of no particular breed but one exceptional beauty, have thrived where humans could not. The descendants of shipwreck survivors and those left behind by once-hopeful settlers have grown in number to around 500, scattered the length of the island – 27 miles east to west. From booming herds of mares and foals to bachelor bands and solitary souls, all of equine life is here among the wispy marram grasses and flat sands.
That we know of these remarkable animals is in large part thanks to photographer Roberto Dutesco who, in the early 1990s, stumbled upon a documentary about the island while channel-hopping late one night.
“I did what you do, make a note of something and put it in a safe place, then forget where you put it,” laughs Romanian-born Dutesco, 59. “About a year and a half later I was flicking through some books and this note fell out saying ‘Sable Island’, so I started making enquiries into what it means to get there – and found it’s actually very complex.”
Like Mother Nature, the Canadian government did not make it easy for Dutesco – based in Montreal at the time – to visit, with a wall of red tape and permits before even making contact with Sable.
“Remember, in the early 90s, there were no cellphones, so communication with the island was very difficult. I had to wait for a satellite to be in position, then I’d have about a minute and a half to talk to the station superintendent, Gerry Forbes, because I wasn’t the only one who wanted to talk to him.”
The government first installed a superintendent on the island in 1801, primarily with the aim of providing lifesaving assistance in the case of wrecks. Light stations were erected in the late 1800s, but had to be moved as the sea shifted the sands underneath them. By 1994 just Forbes and Zoe Lucas, a biologist who has spent more than 40 years studying the island, were the only human residents.
“After a year and a half of insistence, Gerry said ‘Okay, I’m taking two weeks off, let me have a think about it and we’ll talk about it’,” says Dutesco. “Well, instead of waiting to call and see what he said, I simply packed up all my bags, all my cameras, everything, flew to Halifax and rang Gerry.
“He was totally shocked and said ‘Wow, I never told you to do all that, we were supposed to just talk about it’. I simply said ‘You know what, I thought if I was closer to you perhaps you might be more inclined to say yes’.”
Fortunately for Dutesco he did, and so began a 25-year project that transformed him from sought-after fashion photographer to passionate conservationist.
“The first time I landed on the island I jumped out the plane to be greeted by Gerry. He gave me a broad smile and said ‘Welcome to Sable Island’ – and just as he did, it starts to rain, and the fog rolls in.
“The first day it just rains and rains and rains, but I woke up the next day to a clear blue sky, with pockets of storms on the horizon. I set off, with just a walkie talkie for communication, and then I was alone on the island. My first thought at this point was ‘What if I don’t see any horses’? What happens if I can’t get close to them, what about this, what about that? But then I just eased myself into the rhythm of the island, the sand, the grass, the waves, and all that worry just disappeared.
“I realised I was there not just as a photographer, but more of an ambassador for humanity, and thought in that case, how should I behave? Be patient and polite, smiling and happy. I should try to communicate in a way they communicate among themselves. Those were the rules I implemented while witnessing all this extraordinary beauty in front of me, and they stayed with me for the next 25 years – and will remain with me forever.”
Those rules also allowed for an extraordinary relationship with the horses to flourish, resulting in myriad portraits of wild beauty and untamed life. Two horses grooming one another, a ritual of both purpose and pleasure. The stallion chasing away a young pretender to his crown. Herds trotting against the backdrop of a wild sea. Wilder manes brushing the long dune grasses, a secret handshake between the island and its chosen residents – while another image captures the wreck of those it rejected.
“The rules allowed me to meet the horses with equality,” says Dutesco. “Where they’re my equal and I’m their equal, and in the space between we were able to encounter [each other], to sit, to fall asleep in the grass, to have conversations. I felt by practising this law of non-intrusion the horses would accept me in a way that they may not accept me otherwise, and it was really remarkable how welcoming they were.
“I never thought of the horses as just horses. The intention was not so much to discover their surface but discover their interior, and bring to the surface some of their feelings – fear, love, what we call human emotions, although they are thoroughly not human, they’re universal.”
Love is the title of one of his most popular Sable Island images – often spotted on the walls of million dollar apartments listed with high-end realtors – discovered by many in the gallery Dutesco and curator Peter Tunney opened in 2006 in Soho, Manhattan. Recently relocated to Brooklyn, it became the longest running exhibition of its kind in the city – over more than a decade, thousands of collectors, enthusiasts, critics and passers-by were transported from one of the world’s busiest islands to its polar opposite, cast adrift from their busy lives for an hour or two.
However, with the success of the project came greater notoriety for Sable Island, previously the domain of biologists and mariners. Requests to visit increased, and in 2013 the island became a national park reserve, both protecting it for future generations but also opening it up to tourism.
“There’s new governance in place now, and they have a different mandate,” says Dutesco. “There’s the idea that some visitors should be allowed, which I’ve always been opposed to. My contribution to the national park was the idea that visitors cannot be within 60ft of a horse, myself included, so of all the images I’ve taken, I can’t do again or recreate, and I’m very fortunate to have all this film from over the years.”
Balancing awareness with conservation is a classic conundrum the world over, and it was the difficult juxtaposition of bringing a magical place to the people, but discouraging them from visiting, that, coupled with extensive charity work through the gallery, led Dutesco to his next venture.
“It goes back to an old philosophy that you can only protect that which you love,” says Dutesco, “and in order to love it you have to see it.
“That is why the I Am Wild project came about, because of all the requests to visit Sable Island, I thought, what can I do to recreate Sable Island and take it at large?”
The result is a ‘nomadic museum’ as Dutesco bills it – a large portable structure in the shape of an upturned ship through which visitors can experience Sable Island.
“If you imagine, between every rib of the ship there’s a different view on to Sable Island, and now that we have all the tech available – virtual reality, augmented reality, holographic imagery – I’ve designed an experience so that basically I can take you to Sable Island, you can see what I’ve seen through my eyes, and maybe by learning how I see it, you’ll be more protective of it.
“And if I can design an experience the way we have done based on my time with the wild horses of Sable Island, my intimacy of it, then other photographers and other filmmakers, other people at large can bring their knowledge and replace what I’ve done. The intention is, if I can do it with Sable Island, we can do the same for the Amazon, the horses in Camargue, orangutans in Borneo or the rhinos in Tanzania.”
Dutesco’s grander vision involves inflatable versions of his own nomadic museum, in development with a London-based company as we speak, and while the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily put the timing of his aspirations on hold, it has failed to dent the scale of them.
“My intention is to create this on a global scale through the United Nations, so that every country in the world can document and present their own wild beauty and by doing so, instigate a new conservation movement around wilderness and the lakes and mountains and oceans and plains, and all this diversity that has to be protected.”
If setting up and running travelling art installations in every nation sounds like a colossal challenge, it is – yet it is also only one aspect of the I Am Wild initiative. Its commercial arm aims to partner with major global names to create co-branded products with big-name companies, a percentage of the profit from which will be donated to conservation charities through the I Am Wild foundation.
“I think there are plenty of dollars and cents in the world to be spent on conservation, yet I don’t think there’s a unified body in terms of actually doing that,” says Dutesco. “I Am Wild will act as a mediator between the corporate side and the foundations and organisations that are supporting wilderness at large.”
Although not ready to unveil specific names, Dutesco lists major soft drinks brands, credit card companies, hotel groups and luxury goods designers among those who have expressed an interest.
Of course, expressing an interest is a long way from making material change – especially one that will cost companies significant sums of money – but if the Covid-19 pandemic has (temporarily) put the brakes on Dutesco’s plans, it may have also given big business the push it needs to think differently.
Calls for a green recovery are strong – if yet to be enacted upon by the UK and many other major governments – and lockdowns around the world have brought many closer to nature and renewed their appreciation for it. Even before the pandemic, a 2019 study showed 90 per cent of customers said they would switch to a similar brand if it supported a good cause, while 75 per cent of millennials are willing to pay more for products and services that have a positive social and environmental impact.
Yet with economic crunches a likely result of extended lockdowns and unemployment set to rise, a mechanism to continue raising money for environmental and conservation causes without relying on individual donations is paramount.
“We want to show that business and conservation can co-exist and profit, and do well and support one another,” Dutesco adds. Around the time we speak, oil giant BP cut its dividend for the first time since 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, yet enjoyed a 6.5 per cent bump in share price the same day after unveiling plans to shift away from fossil fuel and towards low carbon energy.
A fortnight later, the Trump administration finalised its plan to open up part of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling. There is still much work to be done (and Sable Island itself is in the middle of a gas field, the horizon dotted with platforms).
“I’m very persistent, I don’t give up on things,” says Dutesco, who sold his first photograph – a flower – for $5 in 1982. “Particularly in light of the Covid pandemic, all of a sudden we’re realising that time matters and everything we’re attached to is so much more precious all of a sudden. My wish is for my conversations with the people at the UN to enable us to take this to every single country of the world.”
The UN is familiar with Dutesco’s work having shown a Sable island exhibition titled A World Without Borders in 2003. From one exhibition in New York to 193 exhibitions – all free, footed by the UN and IAMWILD – in 193 countries is quite the leap, idealistic. And yet, it is any less realistic than the idea of hundreds of horses surviving hundreds of years on a sliver of sand in the middle of the Atlantic?
“One thing is for sure – sooner or later, whether six months or a year from now, there is no reason why these nations at large would say no to a project that is being offered for free which talks about conservation and the wellbeing of their lands, just a simple, honest and feel-good type of an experience that kids and adults can benefit from? The conditions are that it has to be free [to view], and that 25 per cent of the space in each nomadic museum will present the horses of Sable Island.
“Why the horse? Why do I always bring it back to these horses? The horse is a unifier of everything, it has been around for thousands of years and is the single animal that transformed the human race in more ways than one.”
He is right – from the moment humans learnt to domesticate the horse, our world transformed. Empires were built and destroyed, populations spread, ideas and progress flourished. That progress continues apace, continues to awe, but often with too little or no regard for the world from which it originated. Perhaps these horses and their mysterious home, for so long a symbol of man’s failure to conquer nature, will help teach us we can scale greater heights by working with it.